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When you are first learning bow-drill fire-making, you must make conditions and your bow drill set such that the chance of getting a coal is the greatest. If you do not know the feeling of a coal beginning to be born then you will never be able to master the more difficult scenarios. For this it is best to choose the “easiest woods” and practice using the set in a sheltered location such as a garage or basement, etc. Even if you have never gotten a coal before, it is best to get the wood from the forest yourself. Getting it from a lumber yard is easy but you learn very little. Also, getting wood from natural sources ensures you do not accidentally get pressure-treated wood which, when caused to smoulder, is highly toxic. Here are some good woods for learning with (and good for actual survival use too): ► Eastern White Cedar ► Staghorn Sumac ► Most Willows ► Balsam Fir ► Aspens and Poplars ► Basswood ► Spruces There are many more. These are centered more on the northeastern forest communities of North America. A good tree identification book will help you determine potential fire-making woods. Also, make it a common practice to feel and carve different woods when you are in the bush. A good way to get good wood for learning on is to find a recently fallen branch or trunk that is relatively straight and of about wrist thickness or bigger. Cut it with a saw. It is best if the wood has recently fallen off the tree. Willow and aspen often break off limbs, especially in ice storms. If no green wood can be found, then use solid dry wood. Cedar can often be found in pretty good condition as standing skeletons. Avoid sections of wood with lots of knots and wood with cracks in it (checks). Once you have a good section of wood (the more, the better), split it in half with an axe (or knife) to let it dry. A branch the diameter of your fist and a couple of feet long is a good size to work with. You want to have lots of material to experiment with as you burn through boards and spindles. Let the wood dry for about a week in the sun if possible, longer in the shade. Now you can make your set. Make sure you have a comfortable knife to work with as this will make things more enjoyable and safer. I suggest a light knife with a blade of about 1/16" thickness. Thinner blades require less effort to be pushed through wood. Avoid knives with finger guards as these just get in the way. A relatively short blade (about 3") is easier to work with. The handle shouldn’t have any sharp, boxy angles or uneven surfaces. Keep your knife sharp. Many knives will do. Mora knives form Sweden are very nice and inexpensive. Don’t hesitate to use the ground as a work surface for bracing the wood against. The more stable the wood you are carving is, the better. Making the Set There are five parts to the bow-drill set. The bow, the string, the spindle/drill, the board, and the handhold. The drill spins against the board on one end and is held vertically by the handhold at the other end. The drill is spun by the bow and string.
Make the hole about half an inch deep. If it bends too easily or is prone to snapping. sturdy branch for hitting the back of knife blades) combination. the dowel should have the same diameter as the first knuckle of your thumb. This mark should be about one full spindle width from the edge of the board (about an inch). Make the sides of the hole slope out at a 45 degree angle so as to form a cone shaped depression. buckskin.. gouge a hole with the point of your knife. Make sure that the string is held tightly by the split by moving the short section of cordage up the split toward the bowstring. split the branch evenly down the middle. the splits should be parallel to that surface. the string will slip frequently and soon break. The Spindle: Take a foot-long straight-grained section of wood (if possible. A dry branch will not split properly. It is best to avoid synthetics such as nylon as they sometimes melt from the friction unless thick enough. Thick cotton cord is just about ideal for repeated use. Whittle the last inch of each end into sharp points. jute. the less wear it places on the string. The Handhold: Take the other half-split branch and saw off a section approximately four to five inches long. Split the first two inches of each end of the bow with a knife. Use square knots of some other knot that will not work loose. Essentially. In other words. These include: nylon. but anything greater than two inches is fine. Make sure it bends evenly to avoid weak spots. The clove hitch is very good for this. Tie one end of the bowstring into a knot. Cotton hockey skate laces will do. It should also be at one end of the board so that you have room to place your foot. exactly in the center from all four sides. but a longer bow is required to result in the same amount of rotations taken per bow stroke. It should not want to bend more than two inches from a straight line when flexed using a little strength. use a string that is at least one and a half times the length of your bow. find a slightly thicker branch or use a denser wood. Take the other end of the bowstring and repeat on the other side. The orientation of the split is very important if the bow has any curve. Place the board flat on the ground so it is stable. Technique & Form If you are right-handed. cut it with a saw or whittle and snap it into a foot long length. Whittle down the edges to remove any rough spots and to provide a comfortable surface for gripping. Shoelaces are usually not thick enough for repeated use. or the thickness of your thumb. Set this end into the split in the bow so the knot is on the side of the bow that is curving away from itself (convex). In general. If the bow is too flexible the string will also slip and you won’t be able to apply the torque that is required. Make sure the split is even and doesn’t run off to the side. On the flat side of this. This is why you need a green branch. The string should be relatively thick. If the bow doesn’t bend. rawhide. and a wide variety of wild plants. The Board: Taking the once-split branch. The amount of slack in the string is something that must be adjusted through trial and error when you fit the spindle. . A thickness of a quarter-inch will last a long time. If it hardly bends at all then you can carefully whittle off a little wood on the inside of the curve. Whittle it down to remove any protrusions so you end up with a flat. gouge a shallow hole similar to the one in the handhold. hold the bow with this hand. The fatter the spindle. from one of your previous splits) and whittle it into a slightly less than one-inch diameter straight dowel.The following describes how to carve the components of a beginner set from a larger chunk of wood. Keep splitting until you get a flat board that is about one inch thick. straight-sided rectangular shape (this isn’t very important). Take two short lengths of cordage and snugly tie them around halfway up the splits. For now the string should be somewhat loose or you won’t be able to load the spindle. The String: There are a wide variety of materials strings can be made of. leather. The flexibility of the bow is important in the overall feel of the set. cotton. Using an axe or a knife and baton (a short. The bow should be reasonably flexible but not flimsy. The board should be about three inches wide. With your knife. this works the same way as the gearing on a bicycle. When the bow is set on a flat surface. Take your spindle and push the point into the board so that you make a mark. The Bow: Find a section of a green (live) branch that is about the thickness of your index finger and almost straight or slightly curved and the length of your arm from elbow to fingertip. This will effectively tighten the split.
The spindle should feel like it’s going to pop out. This may require some adjusting of the string. Load the spindle by wrapping the string around the spindle so that the spindle is outside of the bow. the stabilizing of the left hand against the shin is very important. The tighter the string becomes. put your left foot on the board (if you are right-handed) so the inside ball of your foot is next to the shallow gouge. place the bottom point of the spindle into the hole in the board. The bow should be pointing itself up towards you. the better. If it is pointing down. Make sure the spindle is on the opposite side of the string to the bow. just don’t make it so tight that it breaks the bow. Otherwise the spindle will knock against the bow while stroking. Also. Another possibility is to raise your butt off your foot and lean your chest on your left knee -use whatever works for you. Holding the loaded spindle and bow in your right hand. Burning In . Your right knee should be on the ground and you should be sitting on your right foot. reload the spindle so the bow is pointing up. Let go of the bow.The bow is tilted slightly down to avoid rubbing the string against itself. Cap the other end with the handhold and apply some pressure to keep the spindle from popping out. Your right leg should be parallel to the board. Now.
This is the “heat” stage. Take your knife and scribe a 45 degree angle in the top of the board that originates form the center of the hole. We want to prevent the drill from burning at this end so we use a large surface area. This distributes the pressure forces over a greater area reducing the tendency of the spindle to drill up into the handhold. This is not so important with dry. Colour Light Brown Light Brown Dark Brown/Black Dark Brown/Black Dark Brown/Black Consistency Dusty Fuzzy Fuzzy Little Rolls Crusty Problem Going too slow. reload the spindle so the top is now the bottom and vice versa. you should see a small amount a smoke forming at one or both ends of the spindle. To baseball players. Push the drill into the handhold as hard as you can and slowly rotate the drill. birch bark. The heat stage should produce the least amount of powder with the most amount of heat. Pick up a little bit of speed until both ends are smoking. the suggestions below are for the powder stage. It helps if you haven’t showered for a day. You may want to push the end of the spindle against a smooth rock. rub this end into your hair and along the sides of your nose. Cut out the wood in between these lines so that you have removed about a one-eighth fraction of the burned-in hole. even from the same tree. but is very important when using damp or slightly harder than ideal woods. a small bit will require less effort to drill through a material than a very large one. This is to form the handhold hole. apply a bit more pressure until it does. you should be pushing down enough only to make lots of smoke. sometimes going too fast & not pushing down enough Pushing down too hard. It should match the curve of the drill point exactly now. Reading the Powder If the drill begins smoking in the handhold end you will have to re-lubricate it. Drill slowly and with firm pressure until the bottom end begins smoking. Keep the smoke down to just a wisp. Keep this slow pace until the notch is just about filled. . “powder”. Cutting the Notch You must now make a notch in the board next to the “burned-in” hole so the ground-off powder has a place to accumulate. Remember. going too fast Color is associated with speed. This can be paper. Keep the pressure on the handhold fairly high. and easy to work with. Repeat the pressing of the spindle into the handhold hole and rubbing the tip into your hair until it develops a sheen. If it refuses to. Keep all moisture away from this as it will cause the wood to expand and it will bind in the handhold causing friction and burning. If you imagine an electric drill. This is to transfer the natural oils found on your skin onto the wood. Gently blow on the coal until it begins to glow red. If you are on a floor. Be sure to put the lubricated end of the drill in the handhold. Keep going until the hole in the handhold is the same diameter as the drill. Black means there is plenty of heat generated although you have to be careful not to push too hard. Unload the spindle and rub the top into the hole in the handhold. If not. soft. Now you must lubricate this end (keep track of which end is up and which is down!) This is to keep it from smoking and taking away your energy so all your power can be focused on the lower end. Every piece of wood is different. blow off any dust. etc. Simply begin stroking the bow back and forth slowly. You should see powder accumulating in the notch. At this point. If there is smoke coming from the powder pile for more than a few seconds you probably have a coal. Blow off any dust. etc. The idea is to make heat. not powder. Another solution is to “shoulder” the lower end of the spindle. Repeat the pushing-in procedure. fibrous inner bark of certain trees. It should begin to smoke heavily. You may now transfer it to a tinder bundle. It is most important that the handhold end smoke at this point. Now. Sometimes you can skip the powder stage and just go for the heat. Getting the Coal Place something under the board where the notch is to catch the coal. not pushing down hard enough Going too slowly Perfect Difficult. even when you pick up the speed and push down harder. stop drilling and carefully remove the drill. Now lighten the pressure and drill very fast. This results in less pressure being needed to drill the spindle into the board. hence you must drill faster. This is usually when the wood is very dry. You want the frictionless end of the spindle to be very rounded. Blow on it until it flames up. This effectively hardens the end of the spindle by compressing the wood. This is simply reducing the diameter of the last inch or so of the drill. In other words. Light brown means there is not enough heat being generated. Put yourself into the position explained earlier and begin drilling. Again. but no more powder. If you push down too much you run the risk of making crusty powder and pushing all the good powder you so carefully made out of the notch. soft woods. This slice should go all the way to the bottom of the board so that you have removed a wedge of wood on one side of the board pointing to the center of the drill hole. Keep going until you are totally surrounded by smoke. The two lines will go to the closest edge of the board. This often solves the problem of the handhold burning as well as the problem of the lower end of the spindle refusing to start burning. Repeat until the handhold starts to smoke. You may have to switch the ends of the spindle as one end may be slightly harder than the other. the coal will melt it so keep that in mind. This is simply a fist-sized bundle of dry grasses. You can now begin the first stage. this is known as “boning”.You can now begin the “burn-in” process. Eventually.
This isn’t so much of a problem in itself. fuzzy: Perfect powder . dusty powder Light brown. Crusty means there is too much pressure down. This provides the most amount of surface area for combustion to take place. This usually occurs in combination with too much speed. but it usually occurs because there is not enough pressure down and not enough speed. Dusty means tiny floury fragments are being ground off. fuzzy powder Dark brown/black.Consistency is associated with downward pressure. This powder will not ignite easily because there is little surface area for combustion reactions to take place. Light brown. Fuzzy is perfect.
if you are pushing down as much as you can and still getting dusty powder or hardly any powder at all you have done all you can with technique. It is very important that the fundamentals are learned before attempting the more advanced techniques. there are a couple things you can do. . First. The wider spindle will generate more heat because the edges of the drill will be traveling faster than the narrower spindle. this isn’t possible. The best way to approach this. build up a good pile of powder (whatever it looks like). This allows you to reach higher speeds by taking longer strokes. in my experience. Usually this results in a coal. Keeping a notebook of your experiences and experiments will greatly aid in advancing your ability. You should be able to get a coal nearly every time you try when using a proven set before you move onto made-from-scratch bow-drills. little rolls Dark brown/black. Sometimes however. there is the problem of getting powder in the form of little rolls. A downside of this is that the set becomes more sensitive making it easier to push too hard! If the problem seems to be not enough speed. This may or may not be of help. Your next option is to shoulder the spindle down a little more as was mentioned before. These look like the rolls you would get after using an eraser. you could make another spindle this time a little wider. and just try to make as much heat and smoke as you can. Finally. you get these when the wood is a little hard. is to shoulder the spindle down a bit.Dark brown/black. resulting in less time spent stopping and starting the bow. The second option and probably better is to use a longer bow. This way the set will require less downward pressure to produce more powder allowing you to fill the notch with the same amount of strength. crusty This will usually allow you to adjust your technique and get a coal. Other times. For instance. depending on how long your bow already is. but if you are already tired it can be very difficult. Sometimes these happen because the wood is somewhat damp. If you don’t learn how to read what the wood is telling you. your coal-producing reliability will be unpredictable in the more difficult scenarios.
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